Domestic Violence

Barbara Sheehan's Murder Defense Left Out All This

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The murder trial of a N.Y. policeman's abused wife drew California attorney Tanya Brannan across the country to witness a milestone case. She wonders if more expert testimony might have helped win more leniency for Barbara Sheehan.

Page 2 of 2

Expert Testimony Allowed

Only with the recent assignment of Judge Barry Kron to the case was such expert testimony allowed into the trial. But Kron imposed some crucial limits on how much Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor and researcher at Johns Hopkins University, could say.

Campbell's studies of domestic violence homicide led her to create the pre-eminent danger-lethality assessment for women in battering situations. But she wasn't allowed to assess Sheehan, or even to enumerate the factors that would indicate a situation that was likely to end in homicide.

Instead, she could only present generic testimony on the cycle of violence and the concept of "learned helplessness," which leads women whose every attempt at escape has been thwarted begin to believe that escape is impossible.

It was a discussion of the more-or-less common wisdom on why women don't leave, why they don't call law enforcement, why they lie to family and medical professionals about how they sustained their injuries. As such, it was an analysis of what's wrong with the battered woman – not the batterer – that puts her in a situation of kill-or-be-killed.

What was excluded by the court in Barbara Sheehan's defense was much more important.

Of the 20 or so indicators of lethality in a battering relationship Campbell wasn't allowed to mention, nearly all were present in Barbara Sheehan's situation in the year preceding the shooting. The escalating violence, threats to kill, presence of guns, his talk of suicide, his use of choking and complete control of her daily acts all confirmed the likelihood of what Barbara Sheehan knew to be true – that her time was running out.

Also excluded was the effect of Raymond Sheehan's employment in law enforcement and Barbara Sheehan's ability to report the abuse.

Few "civilians" can conceive of the complexity of the hostage situation domestic violence represents for women whose intimate partners are police officers.

Complex Questions Raised

How do you call the police when he is the police? When he's told you again and again that if you jeopardize his job you're dead?

How is your fear increased by the fact that he always carries guns and is licensed to kill? That his training makes him an expert in control and forced compliance? That he knows how to injure without leaving marks and to stage a crime scene?

Where do you escape to when he has access to battered women's shelters and every imaginable form of tracking and surveillance?

The jury didn't hear that when police officers' partners do report, almost without exception police agencies protect not the complainant, but the officer.

Often he has already laid the groundwork with his fellow officers that she is the problem and he is the victim. She's a liar; she's crazy; she's a drug addict or vengeful or trying to get custody of the children. The result is that if his fellow officers ever respond to a domestic violence call at his house, they are predisposed to discount everything they see and hear except what their brother officer tells them.

Police agencies usually handle complaints of officer-involved domestic violence informally and internally, according to statistics provided by the National Center for Women in Policing, based in Beverly Hills, Calif., a division of the Feminist Majority Foundation. Rarely is a criminal investigation even conducted; and even when officers are found guilty of domestic violence, discipline is "exceedingly light," with counseling as the most frequent consequence.

Allegations of domestic violence rarely show up in the officers' performance evaluations, and those officers are often promoted, many only a short time after the allegations.

The jury was allowed to hear none of this but only the oft-repeated "cycle of violence" and an analysis of the victim that paints her as pathological rather than him.

The jury reportedly had a tough time coming together to arrive at what appears to have been a compromise verdict--not guilty of murder but guilty of the illegal possession of a gun.

I suspect it would have been much easier for them if they'd heard some of the testimony Campbell wasn't allowed to give.


Would you like to Comment but not sure how? Visit our help page at

Would you like to Send Along a Link of This Story?

Tanya Brannan is an attorney and founder of Purple Berets, a California grassroots women's rights group. She is currently documenting the voices of women whose abusers are law enforcement officers.

For more information:

In Defense of Barbara Sheehan:

National Center for Women and Policing:

Battered Mothers Custody Conference:

1 COMMENTS | Login or Sign Up to post comments


Crime Policy/Legislation

Police Drag Heels on Officers' Domestic Abuse

Domestic Violence

NYC Murder Case Hinges on Abuse Expert Testimony

Domestic Violence

To Prevent Violence, Insist Men Stop the Abuse

Domestic Violence

Sheehan Says the Cop She Married Blocked All Exits

Domestic Violence

Oregon Officer Wife-Abuse Probe Preceded Killings

Domestic Violence

Responders Learn to Spot Signs of Strangulation

Excellent, well written article, and I wonder if any of the mainstream news will carry such an accurate and impassioned argument for the defense?!
Anyone who reads this should also read the Kathy Bolcovac story and watch her film "The Whistleblower" about young women who are turned from high school grads looking for a job in another country to sex slaves who live in the worst hovels and are beaten, tortured and killed, and no one is yet helping them; and read Phyllis Chesler's "Women on Trial" about how abused women lose custody of their children to their husband even when he has also been abusing the children.
Women need to be much more vociferous in defending one another publicly, frequently, and especially focussing upon abusive situations. Men are being encouraged from many official mechanisms to continue to abuse women. Only women can stop this!